File (again) under F for Filing


shovel ready
I’ve shared in the past how I jump-start my creativity with quotes and articles from others.  Whenever I need to prepare a new book, lesson, article, or sermon, the first thing I do is pull all of my files on the topic. I’ve spoken and written about this a lot. But I always get a follow-up question:

How do I CREATE the files?

Two years ago, I wrote a post devoted entirely to this topic. In case you missed it the first time, or just need a refresher, here once again is how I collect and file all the quotes and articles that I use in my speaking and writing:

Where I file:

I have two main systems for filing away the quotes and materials I collect: index cards and lateral files.

Index cards are filed alphabetically in card/photo boxes. They contain quotes, written or taped to the front and back, with sources included whenever I know them. As soon as a card on a topic fills up, I just start a new card. I have hundreds of quotes for some subjects, and just a few for others. For example, I have quite a few cards for “delegation,” and not quite as many for “management.”

Lateral files are stuffed with folders in hanging files, arranged alphabetically by subject. Each subject folder contains larger pieces, like magazine or newspaper articles. If a manila folder gets too full, I just start another one which I file behind it.

Trivia Question: How many 5×8 cards (front and back) do you think I’ve filed in the course of 30+ years? **look for answer later in the article

Important note: I get asked all the time for the list of topics I use. Here’s my answer: My list doesn’t matter. Don’t create a list of topics and try to fill them. Instead, create your topics as you find material that you want to file. You know what you speak or write about, and this will give you a personalized filing system that’s easy for you to search through and use.

How I read:

Books: I mark them up as I read. I put brackets around sentences and paragraphs that contain ideas, quotes and illustrations that stand out. In the margin next to each I write the subject under which I want it filed. Then for each item, I turn to the inside of the front cover and write down the page number and subject. I do this throughout the book. Really good books will end up with dozens of passages listed inside the front cover.

Articles: I cut or tear the entire article out, writing the subject and source at the top. (I staple multiple pages together.)

How my staff files for me:

(Because you know I delegated this task as soon as I had someone to delegate it to.)

Quotes: With a marked-up book, a staff member uses the list at the front of the book to find the passages I want to collect. They make copies of all of those pages. Then they cut each passage to size, attach it to a 5×8 index card under the appropriate subject, and write in the source. After so many years of collecting, at least one card probably exists for almost every subject I want to file. If not, my staffer just creates one.

**I have approximately 4,000 individual cards filed away.

Articles: These are filed in their entirety in manila folders under the subject noted. My office contains hundreds of article filed in multiple lateral file cabinets.

How I use my files:

These are the files I draw from. Whatever I’m writing, my first step is always to pull all the files and cards on that subject and have them on my desk beside my legal pad, scissors and scotch tape. (I also carry these supplies in my briefcase at all times.)

My one nod to technology in my office is a copy machine. On it I make duplicates of any quote I want to use, since I don’t want to cut up my cards. (I still have all of my original cards, going back 30+ years.)

I start writing on my legal pad. Then whenever I want to use a quote or article, I cut out the passage from the photocopy and tape it right into my outline (writing in the source). If it’s from a card, I mark the original card to indicate the audience I’m using it for. That way I can avoid delivering the same illustrations to the same group of people.

Share your tips!

I hope this is helpful to you. I’m sure some of you might have systems that are even better than mine. You might even use [shudder] your computer!

Please share with us in the comments: What would you add? How do you structure your files? If you do it on computer, what programs do you use? Let’s help each other improve.

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  1. 1

    I am working on transitioning to your system. If I can follow even just a quarter of this system, I will be in good filing shape. When I grow up, I want to be like you.

    • 1.1
      Jason Pulley says:


      Of all the things I have learned in leadership, and from John, one of those is being true to ourselves and finding what works best for us. Don’t be like John……be Daisy.

      • 1.1.1

        I think you’re both right.
        I identify with Daisy…I want to be like John.
        I want to positively affect those around me, be a leader, and write books.
        I agree with Jason…be myself.
        If I tried to be exactly like John, I wouldn’t be as effective, because I am not John. I am Laura. I’ve got to put the Laura-spin on everything.
        Enjoyed your thought-provoking comments :)

  2. 2
    Craig Henry says:

    I do exactly like John, but now I also cut and paste online quotes, illustrations, ideas, and jokes into the amazing program and App called Evernote where I can place them into topical folders. I now have access to over 8000 notes on my computer, smartphone, tablet, or any computer hooked up to the internet.

    • 2.1
      Ingrid Rounds Hardy says:

      I, too, have begun using Evernote. I especially like the record feature when I am out at a special event.

      I have a similar system to Dr. Maxwell’s, only I was forced to transition to electronic files when my 10-years of notes began taking over our house.

      I now scan my articles and save my hand written notes in Windows Journal or OneNote. I purchased a 1TB external drive for storage and am currently a little over half capacity.

      My problem became being able to retrieve my files, so electronic filing makes searching a breeze.


      • 2.1.1

        Haven’t tried Evernote yet!
        But, Craig and Ingrid, your comments have made me definitely want to check it out :)
        PS. Anything that would be good to know up front?

  3. 3
    Luz stella says:

    Dr Maxwell
    really an admirable job of dedication and surrender to all who appreciate your excellente work.

    Dr. Maxwell
    Realmente un admirable trabajo de dedicacion y entrega para todos los que lo apreciamos su excelente trabajo.

  4. 4
    Cat says:

    I save everything on my notebook, and google is great for sourcing quotes. The quotes that I really want to remember and apply get written out or printed and taped to my wall where I see them every day

    • 4.1

      I’d have to have a really big wall……. ;)

      • 4.1.1
        Cat says:

        I rotate quotes, so when I stop noticing something, I take it down and put something new up on the same subject. I generally have 3-4 things up at once. The rest of it goes in my journal or my Asus notebook. If you have too much stuff up, none of it has an impact, kind of like TV commercials. If it’s too confusing, you just tune it out. :-)

  5. 5
    Jason Pulley says:

    This is something I need work on and appreciate the reminder. I mean well when it comes to taking notes and filing things away but I allow many other things get in the way of that.

  6. 6

    I’m in the middle of reading Developing the Leader Within You and randomly thought I should look to see if you had a blog–so glad I found you! :)
    I’m attempting to write a book (isn’t everybody?) so I find this post very applicable! And I was so glad to read Craig’s comment about Evernote–planning on checking that app out.
    I hope to someday share with you how your chapter on Integrity changed my life, on an eternal level. I’m sure you hear many stories :)

  7. 7
    Kumar Gauraw says:


    I think I had read your previous article on this subject either in one of your books or may be the article itself- not sure where, but I did.

    Since then I created my own Quotes files, my own article repository and started to follow your advise. It is amazing how much these help. Thank you for your dedication to excellence John! You are a true example of leadership!

  8. 8

    So index cards AND lateral files…I assume there are similar topics in each (say a tab in the lat file that says “potential” but also one in your index file)?

  9. 9

    […] Follow JohnCMaxwell on Twitter. Or visit John’s Facebook page. Introducing a new daily video program, A Minute with Maxwell. Sign up here. It’s free! File (again) under F for Filing […]

  10. 10
    David Olorunosebi says:

    John, this is actually my first time being here and believe me all what u really talked about is the actual fact each great individual should constitute in the journey of greatness.
    This act shouldn’t be only encountered during creative sessions, but also for turning point experiences that will cause each individual to have a great laughter at their past when ever they share there life experiences

  11. 11
    Maciej L says:

    Thank you for these valuable tips, Dr. Maxwell. Google Gmail is very helpful. Here is how I organize my ideas using Google Gmail:
    1) Write an email to yourself with the quotes, list of articles on topic, etc., for example “motivation”,
    2) Write keywords in an email subject, for example “motivation incentives”. If you are a non-native English speaker like me or you just use other languages as well, you can write these keywords in multiple languages. It will facilitate searching,
    3) You can widen the list by sending another email in the same thread. You can add additional keywords in the email content, for example “John Maxwell” or “Christian”,
    4) You can use labels to further organize threads, for example “work”.

    Best wishes from Poland,

  12. 12

    I used to operate almost EXACTLY like you but I have made the with to technology and I am much happier now because i can find things better….and don’t have t pay rent for a storage room thats dusty.

    I use pearl trees.com with each “card” a pearl tree and my pearl trees also correspond with Dropbox for my lateral files!

  13. 13
    Jonathan Harrison says:

    I have one main folder titled “Resources” and then I create a folder on my computer with the topic as the title, and then save the file with an accurate description of the article/idea.

    For magazines and hard copies, I scan them into the pc, and name them with the system I previously described.

    If the idea does not fit into the categories above, I create a word processing document and type out the idea, or copy and paste the text.

    if I ever need a hard copy, I can always print it out!

  14. 14
    Todd Stocker says:

    Your principles on filing are great. I’ve recently taken to doing most everything digitally so I can retrieve it with a quick search. Digital books and topics are filed. Articles from news feeds go into a topics folder and I buy all my books now on kindle.

    The only thing I haven’t transferred to digital yet is my personal SOAP devotional. That is still handwritten.

    Thanks for your work, John!

  15. 15
    Rob Moore says:

    Your system is simple enough for me to use. I like it and I’m running with it. Thanks for sharing your secrets with us all!

  16. 16
    Bruno Winck says:

    That’s like a page of quotes per day, like an hour of reading per day I guess.It’s a lot.

    I like the idea of handling quotes separately and keeping track of when they are used.
    Now there are many other sources of information radio, videos, blogs. How would you treat them ?
    I am a software designer so I tend to try to do the most of the computer .
    I only put a stroke of pencil on the side of inspiring paragraphs of books. In a second stage, after completing the book, I review the passage and copy the extracts in my notes possibly with a few keywords (I scan if it is long). To remember the source I use a number I place on each book I buy followed by the page number. Like bk450p45. I appreciate to read books and articles far from any modern device. If there are too many interesting ideas I want to keep, I will use a piece of paper folded, I will write the number of the book on corner and keep all my notes on it. I also use it as a bookmark while I read. Finally I will scan the paper and dispose it. I’m also taking a lot of notes while I work or read on the web. To be able to take notes quickly mixed with bookmarks, screenshots and scan I used a little software I wrote (see Kneaver Tray at kneaver.com). I have been working paperless for the last ten years. Among the benefits my office is apparently tidy and I can carry my references with me wherever I go.
    Only later, like a week after, I sort what I collected into folders carrying names corresponding to various subjects. This is iterative as my list of subjects is being refined. I found it valuable to have this second inspection on the material collected because my mind is clearer with some perspective. While filing I will often add new remarks.
    To reuse stuff a good search is handy to aggregates everything on a set of keywords. Most search systems are weak when it comes to do semantic searches (like using synonyms, special cases, same sentence) so I have surprises and difficulties to reach quickly the best notes. I have many thousands of notes. The good thing is that once you get a first item it is usually surrounded in the timeline by many others since I will typically stay on a given subject for a while. Once I get several items I can seek others directly from the subjects they were stored. The weakness of trees and folders is that some note corresponding to two subjects will only be present in one and missing in the other. Search on keywords is overcoming this. Having (and maintaining) a robust list of subjects to start with is a definite advantage. There is such a taxonomy for books invented by Dewey 150 years ago.

  17. 17
    Jacob says:

    Thank you for sharing your experiece with us John. It’s really helpful. Praying for you and everything God is doing through your life.

  18. 18
    Jacob says:

    Thank you for sharing your experience with us John. It’s really helpful. Praying for you and everything God is doing through your life.